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Who will replace Huawei in the UK’s 5G infrastructure?

If anyone had hoped the internet would bring a newly connected world closer together, they’ve been sorely disappointed.

The schisms and national hostilities which have sprung up this century have often been driven by antipathy towards a particular country’s technology sector.

We’ve seen India banning the web portal project, Telegram banned in Russia and Google unable to operate in China.

Sino-American relations have been steadily deteriorating for years, but American concerns about state interference in Chinese tech firms brought things to a new nadir.

Huawei has borne the brunt of these concerns, with its smartphones now unable to use the Android operating system or access Google Play Store content.

And where America leads, other western nations often follow.

Pressure from the Trump administration undoubtedly contributed to Westminster blocking Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G infrastructure.

Huawei hardware must be removed from the British and French mobile networks by 2028, due to concerns the firm is legally bound to surrender user data to the Chinese government on request.

That would clearly pose a threat to national security in the event of conflict between the West and China, though this risk has always existed in one form or another under Chinese state law.

As a result, the UK’s 5G infrastructure has been left with gaping holes that other companies now need to fill.

But who can manufacture and supply high volumes of communications equipment and wireless hardware at short notice, and at an acceptable price?

Delay upon delay

Huawei’s demotion from the role of key hardware provider wouldn’t be so keenly felt if there hadn’t been numerous other delays in 5G rollout.

Legal action against the release of the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz radio spectrum bands has compounded delays to infrastructure development caused by Covid-19.

As the home nations are plunged into increasingly inconsistent (and incoherent) lockdowns, the UK’s 5G infrastructure remains patchy.

However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

A fortnight ago, Ericsson was unveiled as EE/BT’s Huawei replacement in key locations including the UK’s four home capitals.

O2 hasn’t adopted any Huawei infrastructure in its 5G networks, while Vodafone only used it in base stations rather than its core network.

Three installed Samsung hardware in its 4G network before switching to Huawei for 5G, so it may be able to negotiate a continuation of its former partnership.

Vodafone and Three have yet to announce who will replace Huawei in their networks, but the BT/EE announcement is highly significant.

As the UK’s former telecommunications monopoly holder, BT holds a unique position in the mobile market, while it also dominates the home broadband sector.

Its decision to switch to Ericsson will have been noted by its rivals, though Nokia and NEC are among other manufacturers of 5G infrastructure hardware.

While European brands like Ericsson and Nokia may be the most appealing partners for UK mobile networks, no company is likely to cause controversy on the scale of Huawei.

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